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Casey introduces anti-bullying legislation

SSIA contains provisions against harassment online

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Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A U.S. senator from Pennsylvania on Tuesday reintroduced legislation aimed at thwarting the bullying of LGBT students with a new provision geared toward protecting against harassment via the Internet.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) introduced the bill, which is dubbed the Safe Schools Improvement Act. Joining him as an original co-sponsor is Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) as well as 18 other members of the Senate Democratic caucus.

In a conference call on Tuesday, Casey said the measure was introduced to help ensure that students feel safe as they complete their studies.

“This is in my judgment the ultimate betrayal of a child,” Casey said. “They should go to school with a reasonable expectation that they’re going to be safe, and when they’re not safe, it’s our fault across the country — those of us who are elected officials and those who have anything to do with this challenge of making sure that our children can be educated.”

If the legislation were to pass, schools that receive federal funding would have to establish codes of conduct explicitly prohibiting bullying and harassment. Additionally, the bill would require states to collect data on incidents of bullying and report the information to the Department of Education, which will make the data available to parents and local communities.

Further, the Department of Education would have to provide Congress with a report every two years on the state-reported data, along with other specified data.

Kirk, who was also on the conference call, said his priority in the bill was a provision that wasn’t in the legislation during the previous Congress — language explicitly protecting students against bullying that they could encounter online, such as threats on their Facebook pages.

The new bill clarifies that “electronic communications” are a context in which students could experience harassment.

“It’s incumbent on the national legislature to keep up to speed with what’s happening in the country, and cyber-bullying is now very much a part of 21st century American life,” Kirk said.

Stacy Skalsi, director of public policy for the National Association of School Psychologists, said her organization supports the Safe Schools Improvement Act out of concern for bullied students as well as those engaging in bullying to help guide them to make better decisions.

“We’re really concerned that schools really need to some guidance to move forward,” she said. “There’s still a lot of confusion and ambiguity about how to respond to the problem.”

Casey said bullying that LGBT students and students with disabilities face in school was in particular a motivation for introducing the measure. The senator cited a 2009 study from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network finding that eight in 10 LGBT students say they’ve faced bullying in the last year.

“If it were one in 10, it would be totally unacceptable, but the fact that there are that many in this survey is particularly disturbing,” Casey said.

Charles Robbins, executive director of the Trevor Project, said the Safe Schools Improvement Act would be effective in mitigating the harassment faced by LGBT students.

“Protecting young people from negative school environments plays a critical role in effective suicide prevention,” Robbin said. “The Safe Schools Improvement Act will improve outcomes for elementary and secondary-aged youth nationwide by collecting and reporting on instances of bullying and helping to provide better services for youth who are at risk, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.”

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, also expressed support for the legislation on behalf of his organization.

“NEA strongly supports the Safe Schools Improvement Act and ridding schools of bullying and harassment,” Van Roekel said. “Our children are America’s greatest resource. And as educators, we want nothing more than to create a climate of civility and respect for all students, including LGBT students, in every public school.”

In the House, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) is set to introduce companion legislation. Kirk said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), whom he described as a leader in anti-bullying efforts, could be an original co-sponsor of the legislation.

LGBT advocates have been talking about including this legislation — as well as the Student Non-Discrimination Act — as a component of Elementary & Secondary Act reauthorization when it comes before lawmakers during this Congress.

But Casey said many options are on the table for passing the legislation and he didn’t want to pin down any route for enacting it into law.

“We’re probably going to … debate the best way to move forward, and a lot of that, of course, is going to depend upon what happens on the budget and on the floor, so I don’t think we’re certain yet, just as we’re not certain about a lot of pieces of legislation,” Casey said.

Download a copy of the bill here.

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Florida House committee passes “Don’t Say Gay” bill

“LGBTQ people are your neighbors, family members, and friends. We are a normal, healthy part of society and we will not be erased”

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Florida State Capitol building

TALLAHASSEE – A Republican majority Florida House Education & Employment Committee passed HB 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, colloquially referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill advancing the measure to the full House.

HB 1557 and its companion Senate bill SB 1834, would ban classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, erasing LGBTQ identity, history, and culture — as well as LGBTQ students themselves.

The bill also has provisions that appear to undermine LGBTQ support in schools and include vague parental notification requirements which could effectively “out” LGBTQ-identifying students to their parents without their consent.

“The Trevor Project’s research has found that LGBTQ youth who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school had 23% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year. This bill will erase young LGBTQ students across Florida, forcing many back into the closet by policing their identity and silencing important discussions about the issues they face,” said Sam Ames, Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs at The Trevor Project. “LGBTQ students deserve their history and experiences to be reflected in their education, just like their peers.”

In an email to the Blade, Brandon J. Wolf, the Press Secretary for Equality Florida noted; “Governor DeSantis’ march toward his own personal surveillance state continues. Today, the Don’t Say Gay bill, a piece of legislation to erase discussion of LGBTQ people from schools in Florida, passed its first committee and became another component of an agenda designed to police us in our classrooms, doctor’s offices, and workplaces. Make no mistake — LGBTQ people are your neighbors, family members, and friends. We are a normal, healthy part of society and we will not be erased.”

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.

According to a recent poll conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of The Trevor Project, 85% of transgender and nonbinary youth — and two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth (66%) — say recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health.

When asked about proposed legislation that would require schools to tell a student’s parent or guardian if they request to use a different name/pronoun or if they identify as LGBTQ at school, 56% of transgender and nonbinary youth said it made them feel angry, 47% felt nervous and/or scared, 45% felt stressed, and more than 1 in 3 felt sad.

If you or someone you know needs help or support, The Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678678. 

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California mom claims school manipulated child into changing gender identity

Jessica Konen gave the school permission to use the boy’s name for attendance and tried to be supportive but noted it was difficult for her

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Fox News host Laura Ingraham & Center for American Liberty CEO Harmeet Dhillon with client, Jessica Konen (Screenshot Fox News)

A Northern California mother is claiming teachers in a small school district in the state manipulated her daughter into changing her gender identity and name in a legal claim. 

The claim, filed by the ultra-conservative Center for American Liberty on behalf of the mother, alleged “extreme and outrageous conduct” by the Spreckels Union School District, leading Jessica Konen’s 11-year-old daughter to change her gender identity and drive a wedge between them.

Specifically, the claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, names two teachers – Lori Caldera and Kelly Baraki – at Buena Vista Middle who, in addition to teaching, ran the school’s Equality Club, later known as UBU (You Be You). Buena Vista is a part of the district. 

It comes after Abigail Shrier, the author of a book widely criticized as anti-trans, quoted what the two educators said last year at the California Teachers Association’s annual LGBTQ+ Issues Conference in a piece headlined “How Activist Teachers Recruit Kids.” Caldera and Baraki spoke about the difficulty of running a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in a socially conservative community. 

After the article was published, the teachers were put on administrative leave, and the district hired a law firm to investigate, which is ongoing. The UBU club was suspended. 

Spreckels is a town of about 400 people in the agricultural Salinas Valley, approximately 90 miles south of San Francisco

According to the complaint, Konen’s daughter began attending Equality Club meetings after being invited by a friend when she started sixth grade at Buena Vista. After attending one session, she decided it wasn’t for her until Caldiera convinced her to come back. At the gatherings, Caldera and Baraki held LGBTQ-centered discussions and introduced students to different gender identities and sexualities. 

During her time in the club, Konen’s daughter began exploring her own gender identity and sexuality, choosing to wear more masuline clothes. At some point, she decided to change her name and pronouns, which she has since changed back to her original name and pronouns. 

Konen said she was aware her daughter was bisexual but did not know she began using a male name and gender pronouns until she was called into the school when her daughter was in seventh grade. The meeting caught both Konen and her daughter by surprise – Konen’s daughter had said she wanted to notify her mother, but she did not know the meeting was that day. 

Konen gave the school permission to use the boy’s name for attendance and tried to be supportive but noted it was difficult for her. 

However, when Shrier’s article was published and circulated around the small town, everything changed. At this time, Konen’s daughter was again using a female name and pronouns.

In the leaked recording from the LGBTQ conference, Caldera and Baraki were discussing how they kept meetings private, among other things. 

“When we were doing our virtual learning — we totally stalked what they were doing on Google, when they weren’t doing school work,” Baraki said. “One of them was googling ‘Trans Day of Visibility.’ And we’re like, ‘Check.’ We’re going to invite that kid when we get back on campus.”

However, Caldera told the San Francisco Chronicle that the quotes were either taken out of context or misrepresented. According to Caldera, the stalking comment was a joke. She also defended their work, saying students lead the conversation and they provide honest and fair answers to their questions.
In addition, a spokesperson for the California Teachers Association criticized the group bringing the lawsuit forward, according to the Associated Press: “We are concerned about a political climate right now in which outside political forces fuel chaos and misinformation and seek to divide parents, educators and school communities for their own political gain, which is evident in this complaint. The Center for American Liberty is concerned with pushing its own political agenda through litigation and has filed multiple lawsuits against various school districts and communities.”

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GOP majority city council to repeal LGBTQ+ law in Pennsylvania

“I don’t know of any reasons for repealing it other than a political move […] This issue should not be politicized”

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Chambersburg, Pennsylvania (Photo Credit: Borough of Chambersburg)

The council of this central Pennsylvania borough (town) will meet on Monday, January 24 for a likely vote to repeal an ordinance passed this last October that safeguards residents against discrimination based on their sexual orientation, ethnicity or gender identity.

Opposition to the ordinance is led by newly installed borough council president Allen Coffman, a Republican. In an interview with media outlet Penn Live Saturday, Coffman said, “All of us that ran in this election to be on council we think we got a mandate from the people,” he said. “People we talked to when we were campaigning did not like this ordinance at all. I don’t know what the vote will be, but I have a pretty good idea.”

The political makeup of the council changed with the November municipal election, which ushered in a 7-3 Republican majority.

The ordinance, which extends protections against discrimination to gay, transgender or genderqueer people in employment, housing and public accommodations, was passed in October by the then-Democratic majority council, Penn Live reported.

“I don’t know of any reasons for repealing it other than a political move,” said Alice Elia, a Democrat and the former Chambersburg borough council president. “This issue should not be politicized. It’s an issue of justice and having equal protection for everybody in our community. It shouldn’t be a political or a Democratic or Republican issue. This should be something we are all concerned about.”

Coffman told Penn Live that the ordinance serves no purpose and is redundant. He points out that Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission handles discrimination complaints from residents across the state.

“There are no penalties, no fines,” he said. “There’s nothing that the ordinance can make someone do. The most they can hope for is that the committee request the two parties to sit down with a counselor or mediator and talk about it. Quite frankly there is nothing that compels them to. There’s no teeth in this.”

Penn Live’s Ivey DeJesus noted if Chambersburg succeeds in repealing the ordinance, it would mark the first time an LGBTQ inclusive law is revoked in Pennsylvania. To date, 70 municipalities have ratified such ordinances.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is one of the 27 states in the nation that have no explicit statewide laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.

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